Woodlands of Purbeck

Bluebells in Langton West Wood, Purbeck

Woodlands are Purbeck’s hidden treasures. They may be less well known than our heathlands, grasslands or coastline, but with around 175 hectares divided between 57 separate woodlands, their importance for biodiversity conservation is out of all proportion to their size.

Purbeck’s exceptional diversity of geology, soils and topography is reflected in its woodlands. On the limestone in the south and on the chalk ridge which crosses the estate from east to west, ash dominates the canopy of woods where oak, hazel, field maple are also prominent. 

In contrast, the northern half lies on acidic sands, clays and gravels, and woodlands here fall into two broad types: on drier soils oaks, hazel and holly dominate, while in the wetter areas on the edges of mires and in dune slacks sallow and downy birch are the most common trees.

Just under 50 hectares of Purbeck’s woodlands are classified as ancient, and an evolving mosaic of woods has almost certainly been part of the landscape since the forests were first cleared in the Neolithic. 

As with all our landscapes, our woods are not wild: the oldest ones were managed over many centuries by traditional coppicing in which small areas were harvested on a rotation. Far from impoverishing the woods, this coppicing kept them alive, and much of our best known woodland wildlife – from bluebells and primroses to silver-washed fritillary butterflies and hazel dormice – are associated with the clearings and regrowth that coppicing creates.

Coppicing 

Evidence of hazel and ash coppicing can still be seen in many of the larger woods, but traditional coppice management was largely abandoned in the second half of the twentieth century. Many of the old coppiced woods have become overgrown and densely shaded, and there has been an associated reduction in ground flora, light-demanding invertebrates, and birds. 

In 2015 the National Trust adopted a new woodland plan. 

Part of this is to gradually reinstate coppicing in the woods where it was formerly done: in some cases this is done by our own rangers and volunteers, and in others it is done by local woodsmen who manage the woods on our behalf.

Butterflies like the silver washed fritillary love the sunny glades created by coppicing
A silver washed fritillary butterfly
Butterflies like the silver washed fritillary love the sunny glades created by coppicing

Coppiced areas or ‘coupes’ have now been created in Langton Westwood, Langton Matravers, 12-Acre Wood at Studland and Warren Wood on the way to Old Harry, and more are planned. We are already seeing the benefits for woodland wildflowers, and we are confident that the butterflies, birds and mammals will soon follow suit.

As well as the woodlands, Purbeck has a lot of fantastically old individual trees that are awe-inspiring features in their own right. 

We recently surveyed over 300 of these ‘veterans’, and discovered that many provide the specialist habitat that some of our rarest wildlife needs, from lichens and mosses to deadwood beetles and spiders, to breeding roosts for some of the UKs rarest bats.